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Review - How artists depict ill health

Dr Jeremy Phipps is impressed by this paperback from the Getty museum but wishes the images were bigger.

'Medicine in Art' by Giorgio Bordin and Laura Polo D’ Ambrosio
'Medicine in Art' by Giorgio Bordin and Laura Polo D’ Ambrosio

Medicine in Art is a beautiful book. It is filled with annotated works of art demonstrating and explaining the imagery of illness and healing in media ranging from wall carvings and manuscripts to paintings and sculpture.

A collaboration between an Italian physician and an Italian art historian, the book is part of a series explaining symbolism in art from the Getty museum in California and has 400 colour images.

Huge variety of works
The variety of works of art included is huge, covering pieces from collectors and galleries worldwide. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Munch and Matisse are among the famous artists featured. It is divided into themed sections: for example, mental illness, places of care, physician. Each section is split into chapters commencing with a short medical description and presenting works demonstrating a particular characteristic or disease.

The art featured is predominantly paintings. While the images' meanings are usually obvious, occasionally their symbolism is explained. Details about each work's history are precise and understandable and are helped by the outstanding presentation. The medical facts are oversimplified. In a book on art, rather than medicine, this is understandable. But few would agree with the statement that hospitals in the Middle Ages were 'usually scrupulous about ... hygienic services'.

The book's scope is western art, particularly works from the Renaissance period. This is no surprise given the close connection between Christianity and provision of medical services and the strong sponsorship of art by the church in the middle of the last millennium.

Medicine in Art is only 13.3 by 19.7cm and I was frustrated by the small size of the images. This reduced my enjoyment of the art and lead to some loss of the symbolism's impact.

As a guidebook, Medicine in Art may help to direct readers to galleries where the full impact of the works can be appreciated or to look at larger images online.

As a reference for locating images to support medical lectures and articles, I can think of no better art book.

  • Dr Phipps is a GP in Lincolnshire. Medicine in Art by Giorgio Bordin and Laura Polo D' Ambrosio is published by the J Paul Getty Museum, price £16.99; available from bookshops or www.roundhousegroup.co.uk

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